Bow Aquiver, a Calligraphic Violinist Comes to Lincoln Center

10.27.16
The New York Times

I first heard the violinist Alexi Kenney this summer, under adverse circumstances. He was giving a poorly attended recital at David Geffen Hall, an appetizer to a full-orchestra main course during the Mostly Mozart Festival. Onstage, he was surrounded by empty chairs and crowds of black music stands; in the audience, some people rustled plastic bags between their feet while others energetically shushed them.

The 25-minute recital was made up of almost laughably fragile music for this setting: a brief Fantasy by the Baroque composer Nicola Matteis; a whispered “Nocturne” by Kaija Saariaho; and the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita, the pinnacle of the literature for solo violin.

Mr. Kenney, a lithe 22-year-old with a dancer’s composure, played with feathered bow strokes and a sweet amber sound that sometimes, in the vaulted heights of the Chaconne’s most solemn variations, gained alluring body and depth. By the end of the program, he had not only, Orpheus-like, calmed rows of restless New Yorkers. But he had also established an emotional connection of a kind rarely felt so deeply on the city’s concert scene.

Mr. Kenney is still finishing his artist diploma at the New England Conservatory, but he recently moved to Brooklyn and is poised to become a regular sight on stages across New York. On Friday evening, he performs Piazzolla’s “Seasons” with the Riverside Symphony at Alice Tully Hall, and this week, I joined him for an ichiju-sansai meal at one of his favorite lunch spots, a tiny Japanese restaurant in Williamsburg.

In fact, as Mr. Kenney explained between sips of miso soup, his love for Japanese culture runs deep. As a 4-year-old in Palo Alto, Calif., working his way through the first book of the Suzuki violin method, he changed the mnemonic for one rhythm from “Mississippi hot dog” to “Kappa maki sushi.” There was a Buddhist temple at the end of his street, where he delighted in the rituals of the annual Obon festival and where he attended summer camp, the only child there who wasn’t Japanese-American.

“There’s something about the exoticism of the culture and the acute attention to detail that I love,” he said.

In his playing, he tries to apply some of the same qualities, particularly to his bow, which he said he sometimes imagined as a paintbrush, or a breath. “If you think about calligraphy, every brush stroke, at the beginning of its trail, has a more watery, light section,” he said. “And when you apply more pressure, it has that bigger plume.”

Bringing that watery, faint sound into a concert hall requires courage and vulnerability, qualities that were very much present at that Mostly Mozart recital. When I asked him what possessed him to play such delicate music in a 2,700-seat hall, he laughed.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. Still, he added, “there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to play the Chaconne in a hall like that. Don Weilerstein, my latest teacher, always talks about playing with the room and its acoustics, almost as if it were a chamber music partner.”

Connecting the filigree arpeggios of the Matteis piece with the frail beauty of Ms. Saariaho’s, he said, was intended to make the recital more of “an experience” for the listener. “What I try to do is to transport the audience from one place to the other,” he said, “to hone their hearing and prepare them for the Chaconne.”

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Kenney drew a similar connection in a brief but effortlessly eloquent demonstration presented by the Riverside Symphony at an art gallery. He spoke of the dual role of the violin as a purveyor of dance music and of melodic lyricism, performing two movements of unaccompanied Bach and a virtuosic and rhythmically free rendition of one of Piazzolla’s tango études.
 
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